It’s a tempting idea: Croatia as this Euro Cup’s team that can’t be measured and sized up, in the manner of recent Pakistani cricket teams.
A richly talented bunch of individual players. An out-of-depth, ill-at-ease manager – the fourth in as many years. A larger-than-life but over-the-hill captain, playing on reputation rather than form. A couple of really bright, underexposed attacking players, paired with a tried-and-tested striker who is short of goals recently. Two world-class midfielders capable of passing and controlling games. And passionately combustible fans who provide encouragement to the team, even as they have a history of damaging their team’s prospects with violence and racism. Croatia’s fans are a handful and carry a reputation. They’ve earned penalties for their team; last year, it was a Swastika on the pitch.
Croatia isn’t the team it used to be. Its golden generation that took it to third place in the 1998 World Cup – and to the rarefied air atop FIFA rankings – is a thing of the past. But this team will make its opponents wary. For it is difficult to say what will come out the tunnel on any given day. And it is in a very interesting group; Turkey and the Czech Republic are no pushovers, and nobody is expecting defending champions Spain exiting in the first round in a repeat of the 2014 World Cup.
Its first game is against Turkey, a team not liked very much among Croatian fans. The first contrast is the managers. Turkey’s coach Fatih Terim is a domestic legend, in his third spell in charge of the national team. He has a reputation for struggling in qualification rounds and early stages, and then finding the right combination to produce unexpectedly good displays.
Ante Cacic has won six and drawn one game out of seven since taking charge of the Croatian national team last year. But he has a reputation for doing well initially, and then letting things fall apart. His three previous coaching spells in Croatian and Slovenian clubs have all been underwhelming, even if they began on a good note.
He is uninspiring in press conferences – and no, this is not about being an iceberg. He doesn’t have more to him than meets the eye; Cacic is considered this team’s greatest limitation. Nobody knows what shape and personnel he is likely to prefer; neither does Cacic, many observers say. The only aspects of his line-up that are known are the players who make their place themselves.
His captain Darijo Srna, now 34, does not have the legs or form to keep the defence together. Once the leader at right-back, the Shakhtar Donetsk captain had a reputation for thundering down the flank, marrying attack with defence. But the left-wingers of Spain, Turkey and the Czech Republic will be encouraged by Srna’s recent performances.
In defence is where Croatia is suspected to be most fragile. There is a lack of truly left-sided full-backs. The centre-backs Corluka and Vida are no pushovers, but will be exposed by the lack of a quality holding midfielder.
Now the good news. Croatia have the privilege of deploying two brilliant central midfielders, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. Both can control a game from the deep, both are quality passers with vision, and the entire team will be looking at them for cues. Rakitić's aerial passing is extraordinary; expect him to find big, physical striker Mario Mandžukić in the box with accuracy. He also has a deceptive ability to move into scoring positions from the right flank.
The busy-yet-composed Modrić is a member of the Paul Scholes-Andrea Pirlo-Xavi Hernandez school of midfield generalship. He will run to each player on the pitch to exchange passes, turning his head around like a radar sensing, all movement, even as the ball floats around his feet obediently. He will look busy and workmanlike, attending to the nuts and bolts, and then he will release those passes that come from nowhere and play a teammate into space and a scoring position.
Both Modrić and Rakitić drop deep to help with defence, and like to build up from the back. They may be hampered by the lack of a ball-winning destroyer. Mystery surrounds the third midfielder Cacic will deploy. If Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan comes to the party and fills up that role, Croatia will have the look of a contender.
The excitement, however, is expected of the two young wingers. Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic has everyone salivating in anticipation of pace and penetration on the right wing. Dinamo Zagreb’s Marko Pjaca will likely feature on the left wing, and is touted as the surprise package of this Croatian team.
With a sound and reliable goalkeeper in Monaco’s Danijel Subasic, Croatia actually have the ability to reach the quarter-finals. If they finish second in Group E – as is expected of them – they are likely to face England, France or Belgium in the knockout rounds. It will be fun to see them go against the perpetually overrated English side.
Or Croatia could fold up in the group stage, their defence letting them down, with Turkey and the Czech Republic feeding off the vulnerabilities and lack of direction. It’s all in the mix.
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subašić (Monaco), Lovre Kalinić (Hajduk Split), Ivan Vargić (Rijeka).
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv Moskva), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kyiv), Ivan Strinić (Napoli), Gordon Schildenfeld (Dinamo Zagreb), Šime Vrsaljko (Sassuolo), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen).
Midfielders: Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), Ivan Perišić (Internazionale Milano), Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozović (Internazionale Milano), Marko Rog (Dinamo Zagreb), Ante Ćorić (Dinamo Zagreb).
Forwards: Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), Nikola Kalinić (Fiorentina), Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb), Duje Čop (Málaga).